Like your Cyborg Pianist tour in 2016, Piano Ex Machina explores interactions between technology and pianist. What is it about these interactions that fascinate you?
I’ve spent most of my career exploring new approaches to the piano. New technologies offer a huge range of options for doing this, and we’re at a stage where sophisticated technologies that were once only accessible to those in specialist institutes are now widely available, from AI to motion sensors to film editing to live 3D animation. The music also reflects what’s happening in our culture, with technology being integrated into our lives at every level, and the boundaries between different types of culture and art forms breaking down. So this has been my focus for the last six years, and has led to performances all around Europe.
Zubin Kanga. Photo © Raphael Neal
You recently spent some time at the University of Nice and at IRCAM, what were you researching there?
That project focused on Music and Gesture, with my own projects looking at gesture and new technologies. Some of these involved motion capture but many were about combining theatre, music and film many ways, with the results ranging from deeply immersive to comedic.
What are some of the ways you will interact with technologies in Piano Ex Machina?
Alexander Schubert’s WIKI-PIANO.NET has been a centrepiece of my programs over the last year. It’s a piece that exists on the Internet, editable by anyone, just like an Internet page. Members of the public can add musical notation, pictures, videos, sounds, text and actions, just like a Wikipedia article.
There’s also some live interactive visuals in Ben Carey’s Taking the Auspices, video-game style control of video samples by Tristan Coelho in Rhythm City, a 3D motion sensor to control multiple layers of piano samples in Jon Rose’s Ballast, analogue synths, stop motion animation and some fun use of green screen in Adam de la Cour’s tribute to 80s action films and video games. Audiences can expect to go on an immersive journey of music, visuals, theatre and comedy – very different from a traditional piano recital.
How did WIKI-PIANO.NET come about, and how does audience interaction influence the performance of this work?
I commissioned WIKI-PIANO.NET in 2015, and premiered it in 2018. I had known about Alex’s work as a leading young German composer, and so was thrilled when he accepted this commission. We had talked about a lot of different approaches to a solo piano work, and this Internet-based score seemed timely, given the explosion of crowd-sourced creative content on the Internet in recent years. Just about everything on the website is open to be edited, and I play what’s on there for each performance, so every time I play it, it’s completely different.
The work has had a great reception, with the Australian performances part of a 20-city international tour (which is still growing). What’s fascinating is how the work reflects what’s happening on the Internet at a given time – I’ve had disco remixes of contemporary music, pop culture references to The Room, Will Smith and ‘dabbing’, intimate messages to myself and the composer, been instructed to order a gin martini repeatedly, played along with the final scene of 2001: a Space Odyssey and the opening music of Stranger Things, accompanied a late 90s pop song, taken a selfie with the audience and (in a particularly meta version), played with earlier concert films of myself, like some strange Internet feedback loop. I also narrate all the latest comments on the website, which becomes a fun commentary on social media.
I also love when there’s local content added – people in the audience making in-jokes with each other, or about the city or festival we’re in at the moment. I really hope Australian audiences add some particularly Australian memes and jokes that will give it a local flavour. To get composing, just visit the website here.
What kind of sound world is created in Jon Rose’s piece for 3D hand sensor?
He layers lots of different piano samples on top of each other, and then uses the 3D sensor to control these, warping them in really wild ways. It’s a fun, hyper-virtuosic piece, that really transfers his own experience with motion sensors with the violin over many decades to the solo piano medium.
Many of the works involve video content, what can we expect from these pieces?
I love working with video and film – all music is essentially audio-visual, so adding this extra visual content allows for some really interesting interactions between what I’m doing on stage, and what happens on screen. Tristan Coelho triggers video recorded around the city (with sound) from the sounds of chopping and boiling in his kitchen, to a scene of a plan landing, so it becomes like a complex video instrument. Ben Carey’s Taking the Auspices functions more like an autonomous AI chamber performer, visually transforming in response to what I play. Kate Neal’s Novel Piano uses stop motion animation to create a keyboard out of books on screen – my hands then sync up with the hands in the stop motion – an extraordinary achievement by animator Sal Cooper. And Adam de la Cour has me cast as the protagonist in an action film, so I’m actually battling my way through, beating up the evil henchmen, on the piano as well as on screen.
This type of interdisciplinary composition – incorporating film, theatre, animation, comedy and crossing genres into pop/electronic music has now spread across Europe and it’s great to be bringing this work to Australia.
What sparked the idea for your own work on the program, Transformations?
I’ve been writing works using delays, loops and sampling with the piano in the past couple of years, and I thought it would be really interesting to combine these manipulated piano sounds, with the sounds from an analogue synth. All these sounds have deep connotations and memories of other music embedded in them, and finding ways of melding these sounds was a really fascinating journey.
More broadly, I’ve been interested in the idea of queer bodies for some time, and the tension between the desire for radical transformation and the desire for acceptance as one is. Having several close relationships with trans individuals has made me particularly aware of the challenges they face around these issues of the body, self-image and transformations, and they have been a major inspiration for this work.
I understand you’re working on a book about musician-technology interactions – when will that be published?
Writing a book is no small feat, but I plan to finish it in the next two years.
Are there any future projects that you are particularly excited about?
I’m doing a recital for Nonclassical (a major contemporary music/indie classical organisation) in London in May, with new works by two of the Britain’s hottest young composers, Neil Luck and Laurence Osborn. I’m playing some more of Nicole Lizée’s film-based works later in the year in London (her sets on the films of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese) and playing at some major festivals in the Netherlands and Germany. And I’m really excited to be working with Michael Finnissy (arguably the world’s leading composer for the piano) on his first work with film, for a major festival in London. In Australia there’s a number of big projects coming up with Ensemble Offspring, including a big international tour, as well as as a collaboration with trumpeter (and Artistic Director of the Australian Art Orchestra) Peter Knight to record a CD together. I’m also keen to do an hour-long work of my own combining pianos and analogue synths, which I’ll be recording and touring next year.